Jobs-to-be-Done in the Customer-Centric Organization

by Hutch Carpenter

A while ago on Twitter, I asked this question:

Hutch Carpenter Jobs-to-be-Done Tweet

I asked it, as I had a conversation in the preceding days with a fellow from a large corporate. Customer-centricity was recently adopted as an internal mantra, but the manifestation of that was…wait for it…sentiment analysis.

It’s a start, right? But is it really a difference-maker?

I’ve written before about jobs-to-be-done. As in, what customers hire your product to do. Those jobs have a tendency to (i) be hidden from you; and (ii) change over time. Knowing, and acting on, jobs-to-be-done (JTBD acronymized) is probably one of the most customer-centric things a company can do. You’re getting deep into what someone is buying your product for.

While I don’t work for a large corporate, I am integrating jobs-to-be-done in some work on next generation gamification elements for the Spigit platform. Why? Because there are many different types of game mechanics that can be applied to a platform. But why would you add any of them? To better deliver on what your customers hire you to do. To accomplish this, I’m using the Listhings site – online post-it notes – to collect and socialize these. I follow my own format for JTBD: context, job, success metric. An actual (blurred-out) example is below:

Jobs-to-be-Done in the Customer-Centric Organization

You know what? Customers love talking about their jobs-to-be-done. Seriously. I usually schedule an inital hour to talk about them, and every single company has wanted to continue to the conversation for another hour. The conversations are not just good customer relations, which they are. They are leading to areas where the Spigit platform can apply game mechanics to improve their outcomes.

But apparently, this approach is sort of radical. As only 7% of firms are deemed to be customer-centric.

Where would JTBD fit?

Which got me thinking. What exactly are companies doing today, at least in the product and service development arena? Where would customer jobs-to-be-done fit with existing approaches? The graphic below is my take on what’s happening out there:

Jobs to be Done in Product Service Design

The center blue area represents the work of ideating, designing and producing products and services. The top grey boxes floating around up there? Those are the current factors influencing the product/service development process.

1. Market Analysis

Classic input for product development here. What are the trends? What are competitors doing? What’s going on in adjacent markets? You’re got to do this. It’s a source of ideas, and evidence of what customers are gravitating toward.

2. Executive Fiat

Does this really happen??? Heh, just joking of course. This will be a reality forever, and it’s actually appropriate in mild doses. The thing to watch is the bull-in-the-china-shop approach, where that product is gonna get done, I’m not listening to anyone! Perhaps too many executives subscribe to the Steve Jobs-attributed notion that customers don’t know what they want (“So I’m going to give it to them!”).

3. Usage Vectors

Once you have product out there, you learn what people are using, what they value in the existing product features. And you continue to develop along those vectors. It’d be irresponsible to do otherwise. Just watch getting stuck on those vectors and missing the market shifts.

4. Customer Service Tickets

As people use your product, they’re going to file requests and report issues. These items are some clues to what people are trying to get done. They suffer from being narrow, focused on a specific interaction point and grounded in what they know of the current product. But you can divine some of what people want to get done from these.

5. Customer Surveys

Surveys get you closer to customers. Polling people’s preferences for difference attributes and behaviors. Good input as you consider a product or venture. Problem with surveys is that the questions are set ahead of time. Whoever puts them together has to decide what the key factors are. But that leaves a huge hole in understanding what customers themselves value.

6. Focus Groups

A favorite activity of large companies is to get some random people in a room for a couple hours and ask them about some concept being tested. In that these sessions have actual people talking, they are nominally useful. But common critiques of these are that:

  • Participants tell researchers what they want to hear
  • The format is unnatural – forced face-to-face interactions with strangers for two hours in a closed room
  • Alpha personalities sway things
  • What’s discussed are already-decided concepts, not insight on what customers are looking to get done

As was stated in this 2003 Slate article, “The primary function of focus groups is often to validate the sellers’ own beliefs about their product.”

Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) Fills a Gap

In all of the popular bases for developing products and services, one can see a gap. Most are a triangulation to understanding what customers want. Now some are quite useful in a customer-centric sense: usage vectors, customer service tickets, surveys. But they’re also piecemeal.

They represent the hope that you’ve got a bead on customer needs and wants.

Why the reluctance to actually talk directly with customers? Seems plain talk in a (not overly) structured way will give you a better sense of where opportunities lie. Aside from the product/service tools listed above, there are the social media engagement practices of today (react to tweets, have a Facebook page, sentiment analysis). All have their place, but they fall short.

Want to be customer-centric? Try talking to your customers.


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Hutch CarpenterHutch Carpenter is an independent innovation management consultant. He was formerly VP of Product for Spigit, and has worked in product management for a decade. He’s a firm believer in the concept of jobs-to-be-done, which stresses the importance of understanding customers’ wants and needs. He’s @bhc3 on Twitter.